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two plates of chicken biryani with yogurt sauce in a bwol near it

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

Moving between Canada, Singapore, India, and the United States multiple times over the course of my childhood means I’ve never quite identified one place as “home.” Instead, I find the comfort of home through the various flavors and dishes of my childhood. One of these dishes lies in a clay pot brimming with spiced rice and meat, sealed with plain dough, which, when sliced open, releases steady puffs of steam that make my mouth water instantly. I’m talking about biryani.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

There’s something mystical about biryani, an abundant Indian dish layered with spiced marinated meats and aromatic long-grain rice. Historians have tried and failed to come up with a conclusive origin for it. Some say it originated in Persia around the 15th century (or perhaps earlier) and was brought to India by Persian migrants. Other stories revolve around war and trade.

Perhaps the most famous tale involves the leading lady of one of the grandest love stories ever told: Mumtaz Mahal, the beautiful queen whose husband built her a mausoleum now known as The Taj Mahal. Legend has it that in the 1600s, Mumtaz visited the royal army barracks and found the soldiers looking weak and malnourished. She ordered the royal chef to prepare a dish filled with meat and grains for sustenance. The result was biryani, a fragrant and hearty dish that later grew popular and increasingly opulent across all the royal kitchens in India. 

It is said that every ruler put their own spin on the dish inspired by ingredients found locally, which resulted in more than 30 different varieties of biryani. While the base components of rice and meat remain the same, every variation has subtle variations in technique and ingredients. The most commonly known biryanis today are Lucknowi, Bombay, Memoni, Malabar, Ambur, Thalassery, Sindhi, Tehari, Dindigul and, perhaps the most popular, Hyderabadi, a version of which I’m sharing here. My recipe features chicken as the protein, and involves a store-bought shortcut to get it on the table faster.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

My Favorite Way to Make Biryani at Home

Biryani can be cooked in one of three ways: dum phukt, a method where par-cooked rice and raw marinated meat are cooked for many hours in a heavy-bottomed vessel, such as a clay pot or Dutch oven; kacchi, a method that combines raw rice and raw meat cooked dum-style; and pukka, a method where the meat and rice are both par-cooked separately and then cooked dum-style.

When it comes to making biryani at home, I’ve tried all three cooking methods and have found that pukka is the most reliable way of getting the most flavor in the quickest amount of time. In fact, while the list of ingredients and steps may seem complex, it’s actually a fairly straightforward recipe. The key to success here is mise en place — have all your ingredients laid out and measured before you start cooking! 

While the idea of cooking dum-style (slow cooking) can be achieved using a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, you can get ambitious and make a traditional dough seal. Many Indian restaurants will serve biryani this way because it keeps the steam in, allowing for true “slow cooking” and flavor development. To make it at home, mix 1 cup flour with a pinch of salt and enough water to create an elastic dough and stretch it over the top of your pot right before you put the biryani in the oven. When you’re ready to serve, cut a slit in the dough to release the steam before removing the dough entirely.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

5 Tips for the Best Biryani

  1. Start with a store-bought biryani mix. Starting with a store-bought seasoning mix is so much faster and easier than making one yourself, and it means you don’t have to have all of the individual spices on hand. The Shan biryani mix is my personal favorite: It’s the closest I’ve come to what I’ve had at an Indian restaurant (better, in fact).
  2. Let the chicken marinate overnight. This recipe uses full-fat Greek yogurt to slowly tenderize the chicken thighs. For superbly tender and well-spiced results, let the chicken marinate overnight with the yogurt and spices.
  3. Opt for basmati rice. While biryani can be made with a variety of rice types, the long, nutty grains of basmati rice are the best accompaniment to the spices. Since basmati can be very starchy, I recommend rinsing the grains in a bowl of cold water to prevent clumping.
  4. Use ghee. Cooking with ghee instead of other oils adds to the nutty undertones of the dish.
  5. Don’t skip the final layer of yogurt. The addition of saffron-infused yogurt to top the rice just before baking ensures the rice stays moist and infuses the dish with saffron’s distinct flavor.

How to Make Chicken Biryani

YieldServes 4

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

For the chicken:

  • 1 (1-inch) piece

    fresh ginger

  • 1 (1.76-ounce) packet

    Shan biryani mix

  • 1 cup

    plain full-fat Greek yogurt

  • 1 tablespoon

    freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon

    Kashmiri red chili powder, such as Kashmirilal

  • 1 pound

    boneless, skinless chicken thighs

For the rice:

  • 1 cup

    basmati rice

  • 3 cups

    water, plus more for rinsing

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground cloves

  • 2

    bay leaves

  • 1

    (3-inch) cinnamon stick, or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    (or 1 small pinch) saffron threads

For layering the biryani and serving:

  • 2

    large red onions

  • 1

    large Yukon gold potato (about 8 ounces)

  • 1 teaspoon

    garam masala

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground turmeric

  • 1/2 cup

    plain full-fat Greek yogurt

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    (or 1 small pinch) saffron threads

  • 2 tablespoons

    ghee

  • 1 cup

    water

  • Raita, for serving (optional)

Equipment

Instructions

Marinate the chicken:

  1. Prepare the marinade. Peel and mince a 1-inch piece of ginger until you have 1 tablespoon. Place in a medium bowl. Add 1 (1.76-ounce) packet Shaan biryani mix, 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder, and stir until well combined.

  2. Marinate the chicken. Add 1 pound chicken thighs and mix until the chicken is entirely coated with the yogurt marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.

Make the rice:

  1. Rinse the rice. Place 1 cup basmati rice into a medium bowl. Add enough cold water to cover the rice. Agitate the rice in the water with your hands for about 15 seconds. You will notice the water begins to get cloudy. Pour the rice into a fine-mesh strainer in the sink. Repeat submerging, rinsing, and draining the rice until the water is no longer cloudy and you can see the rice grains within it, 6 to 8 rounds total.

  2. Boil the spices. Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon or a 3-inch cinnamon stick, and 1/8 teaspoon (or a small pinch) saffron threads. Boil for 5 minutes.

  3. Par-cook the rice. Add the rice and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook until the rice is par-cooked (the grains should still be a bit chewy and break into pieces when pressed between your pointer finger and thumb), about 5 minutes.

  4. Fluff the rice. Remove the pan from the heat and uncover. If the water has not been fully absorbed, drain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove excess water and then return to the pan. Fluff the rice with a fork.

Layer and cook the biryani:

  1. Prepare the onions, potatoes, and yogurt sauce. Peel and halve 2 large red onions, then slice 1/2-inch thick. Peel and cut 1 large Yukon gold potato into 1/2-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon garam masala and 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, and toss to coat. Place 1/2 cup Greek yogurt with 1/8 teaspoon (or a small pinch) saffron threads in a small bowl and stir to combine.

  2. Brown the onions. Melt 2 tablespoons ghee in a 3 1/2-quart or larger Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes total. Transfer half of the onions to a bowl or plate.

  3. Simmer the potatoes, chicken, and sauce. Transfer the spiced potatoes, marinated chicken, and any remaining marinade in the bowl to the Dutch oven. Add 1 cup water, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until a creamy sauce forms, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F.

  4. Layer on the rice, yogurt sauce, and onions. Fluff the rice with a fork again. Transfer the rice over the chicken and potatoes and spread it into an even layer. Dollop the saffron-yogurt mixture over the rice and spread it out as best you can into a thin, even layer without disturbing the rice too much. Top with the reserved fried onions.

  5. Bake for 20 minutes. Cover and bake until the rice is tender and the sauce is almost completely absorbed, about 20 minutes. Uncover and let rest 5 minutes before serving with raita if desired.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The onions can be fried up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated.

Storage: Leftover biryani can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 3 days.

Ingredient/Equipment Variation: If you’d prefer, use 1 tablespoon of this lal masala instead of the red chili powder to marinate the chicken, but omit the lemon juice from the marinade.

 

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